In the Eastern Orthodox Calendar, Lazarus Saturday –which commemorates the raising of Lazarus — marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter (Paschal) cycle.  It is called Лазарева Суббота — Lazareva Subbota — in Russian, and in Greek Το Σάββατο του Λαζάρου (To Sabbato tou Lazarou).

It has its icon, which is the “Raising/Resurrection of Lazarus” — in Greek Ἡ Εγερση/Ανάσταση του ΛαζάρουHe Egerse/Anastase tou Lazarou .” In Russian iconography it is usually titled “Resurrection of Lazarus” — Воскресение Лазарево — Voskresenie Lazarevo.  Icons of the type are usually much the same.  Here is a Byzantine example from around the beginning of the 15th century:

(Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

We see Jesus at left, in a brilliant blue garment that must have been painted using powdered lapis lazuli, an expensive mineral pigment:

At right we see Lazarus, called forth from his tomb and still standing in the grave wrappings, which are being removed by two men.  Two others carry the long cover of the open tomb.  The two imploring women kneeling before Jesus are the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.

This icon requires no lengthy explanation,  The story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in Chapter 11 of the Gospel called “of John.”

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the rather gloomy raised Lazarus later became the first bishop of Kition/Kiteia, which is modern-day Larnaca on the southern coast of Cyprus.  Latin Christianity had a quite different tradition in which Lazarus, Mary and Martha were set adrift in a boat by hostile Jews, and miraculously floated to Marseille on the southern coast of France, where Lazarus became the first bishop.  It is a legend that seems to have developed by the 13th century, and likely confused the biblical Lazarus with another bishop in France.



Today we will look at a 16th century fresco from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece.  Unfortunately, part of the image is blocked by the gaudy, gilt baroque-style woodwork in front of it, but nonetheless we can see enough of the image for our purposes.  Here it is:

This icon image is a good example of how helpful it is to have general biblical knowledge when trying to identify a scene.

Obviously, it is a boat full of men fishing, and one man swimming toward shore:

If we look to the right, we can see a figure (partially hidden by the woodwork in the foreground) identifiable as Jesus.  How do we know?  First, he has the halo with three points of the cross visible in it.  That is characteristic of Jesus.  Second, we see the Greek letters IC XC above his head, abbreviating  Iesous Khristos  — “Jesus Christ” — so there is no doubt about who it represents:

We should also look down below Jesus, where we see — again partially hidden by the woodwork — a round loaf of bread marked with a cross, and part of a fish lying on what look like red rocks.  That is another clue.

If you know the New Testament reasonably well, you probably already identified the scene.  But if there is any doubt, we need only look at the fragment of Greek inscription at upper right:

The beginning is not visible, but we can see at least this much:

As is common in older Greek inscriptions, the letters are all run together, without spaces separating the words.  At the beginning of this portion, we see a T followed by the joined letters O and U, with the U looking like a V and placed on top of the O.   can see the ligature joining the letters O and U.  And we also see at the end the joined letters T and O, with the T placed atop the O.  You will be familiar with those ligatures from past articles here.

Here is the visible portion of the inscription again:


If we separate it into words, we get:


It is not a title inscription.  It is Jesus talking, and we find his words in the Gospel called “of John,” chapter 21:

 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Βάλετε εἰς τὰ δεξιὰ μέρη τοῦ πλοίου τὸ δίκτυον, καὶ εὑρήσετε.
Ho de eipen autois Balete eis ta dexia mere tou ploiou to diktuon, kai

“And he said to them, Cast to the right side of-the boat the net, and

So that tells us this is a scene from the story told in John 21.  It is the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.  Here is the portion relevant to the fresco image:

1.  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and in this manner he showed himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.

Simon Peter says to them, I am going fishing. They say to him, We also are going with you. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus says to them, Children, have you anything to eat*? They answered him, No.

And he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to pull it [in] because of the multitude of fishes.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord.  Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer garment around him, (for he was naked,) and cast himself into the sea.

8 And the other disciples came in a little boat; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

Notice that in this story, as mentioned in previous postings about the ability of Jesus to appear in “another form,” the disciples do not at first recognize him.

Also, it is interesting to note that the word translated above as “anything to eat,” when Jesus asks the disciples if they have any, is προσφάγιον/prosphagion in the original Greek.  It commonly means cooked fish as food, but it can also mean other things eaten with/on bread — literally something “to eat.”

Notice that we also now know what the little “red rocks” are that the fish is lying on in the fresco — they are the hot coals mentioned in 21:9:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

The round loaf of bread is reminiscent of the Eucharist.

The image of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias is a common part of later Russian “Resurrection” icons that combine several related scenes.  If we look at this central image from a 19th century Palekh (that famous icon-painting village) icon of the Resurrection and Major Church Festivals, we see the “Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias” at lower right:

The painter of this image has given the disciples a rather grand sailing ship with three masts.  We see Peter in the water, and Jesus standing on the shore at left.


Though painted in a very traditional manner, this icon shows again that there never was an Eastern Christian art without outside influences.  Even the earliest Christian depictions were heavily reliant on images prevalent in the Greco-Roman art of the time.

Over the years the art of the Russian Church was influenced by images from the Catholic and later even Protestant West of Europe.  This influence only increased with the great change in Russian Orthodox State Church painting that came after the break with the Old Believers in the middle of the 17th century.  By the end of that century, State Church art went one way, while the Old Believers maintained the traditional stylized manner of painting.

This Western influence brought new depictions into Russian Orthodox iconography.  One of these was the “Coronation of the Mother of God” — the Коронование Богородицы — Koronovanie Bogoroditsui, which came into Russian iconography via the Catholic-influenced art (including book engravings) of Ukraine.


Here is the inscription at the top:

It reads:



The “Coronation of the Virgin” image had been found in the art of the Catholic West since the 13th Century.  It was often combined with the “Assumption.”  In Russian Orthodox art, images of the death of Mary are depicted as the “Dormition” (Uspenie) — and for centuries, there was no “Koronovanie”  type in Orthodox art — no “Coronation.”  But in the 18th and 19th centuries, such icons became increasingly common, and were sometimes depicted — as in the West — in a “Dormition” icon with the “Coronation”  added in clouds above it.  Here is an example — the central image of an icon painted in 1694 by Kirill Ulanov (Кирилл Уланов) for the Pokrov Church in Moscow:

Gradually, however, icons of the “Coronation” without the “Dormition” scene became more common, like the first example on this page.

When the “Coronation” type first began to appear in Russian iconography, some were unhappy because it seemed to import a distinctively Roman Catholic teaching into Eastern Orthodoxy.  But as you may recall, there is a type of Deisis icon commonly called “The Queen Stands at Your Right,” in which Mary is shown crowned and in royal robes.  It applies the Old Testament phrase from the 44th Psalm to Mary as “Queen”:

“…the queen stood by on your right hand, clothed in garments wrought with gold, and arrayed in various colors...”

Of course that text originally had nothing to do with Mary at all, but it did provide a handy excuse for the adoption of the “Coronation” image into the icon repertoire by Russian Orthodox painters.



This icon from Palekh — painted at the end of the 1700s-beginning of the 1800s — depicts one of the traditional appearances of the Arkhangel Mikhail/Michael.  We can tell which one it is not only from the form of the image — which shows an angel with sword drawn, standing before a kneeling man in armor and helmet — but also from the inscriptions.  The image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — God the Father in the clouds at upper left, is of course not present in all icons of the type.

The inscription by the angel reads: СВЯТЫЙ АРХИСТРАТИГЪ МИХАИЛЬ — Svyatuiy Arkhistratig Mikhail — “Holy Arkhistrategos Mikhail/Michael.”  Arkhistrategos (ἀρχιστράτηγος) is the Greek word — borrowed into Slavic — for “Chief Commander.”  It is given to Michael because he is considered the commander of the heavenly armies of angels.

The inscription by the kneeling soldier is:  СВЯТЫЙ ИСУСЪ НАВИНЪ — Svyatuiy Isus Navin — “Holy Jesus/Joshua [of] Nun.”  In Greek, the names Joshua and Jesus are the same, so this Isus Navin is the Old Testament Joshua, son of Nun — or in Greek, Ιησούς του Ναυή  — Iesous tou Naue.  Notice that the Palekh icon uses the Old Believer spelling for Jesus:  Isus, not the State Church spelling Iisus.

There is a long inscription at the base of the icon.  It is (with slight variation) the text of the Old Testament account (Joshua 5:13-15) describing the event depicted:

Иисусъ воззрев очима своима, виде человека стояща пред ним, и мечь его обнажен в руце его.  И рече ему Иисусъ, наш ли еси, или от сопостат наших? Он же рече ему: аз архистратиг силы Господни, ныне приидох семо. И Иисусъ паде лицем своим на землю и поклонися ему, и рече: господи, что повелеваеши твоему рабу? И рече архистратиг Господень: иззуй сапог с ногу твоею: место свято есть.

“Jesus/Joshua lifting his eyes, saw a man standing before him, and his sword drawn in his hand.  And Joshua said to him, are you for us or from our enemies?  He however said to him:  I am the Commander of the Powers [armies] of the Lord, now come here.  And Joshua fell on his face on the earth and did obeisance to him, and said, Lord, what do you command your servant?  And the Angel of the Lord said:  Take off the shoes from your feet; this place is holy.”

It is an easily recognizable image, no matter the style in which it is depicted.  Here is a Greek manuscript illustration of the same event:




Childbirth was a very serious matter in Russia in the days before modern medical care.  Being a difficult time for women, they turned to what comfort they could get from an icon considered to specifically help with the difficulties of birth.

There are two variants of icons on this theme, and their names tend to be confused in practice.

The first is called (not surprisingly), Помощь В Родах — Pomosch v Rodakh — the “Help in Birth,” or some slight variation on that such as Помощница В Родах  — Pomoshchnitsa v Rodakh — “Helper in Birth,” etc.  Here is an example

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

The title here reads Поможение Родам’ Пресвятыя Богородицы — Pomozhenie Rodam Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Help in Birth Most Holy Mother of God.”

As you see, it is somewhat similar in form to the Znamenie (“Sign”) type, except in the “Helper” the mother’s hands are held inward at an ellipse with the Child Christ (Immanuel, Logos) in it.

The second variant is called «Помогательница женам чады рождаты»  “Helper of Women in Birthing Children.”  But as already mentioned, the title given this type is often one of the same used for the first variant, as we see in this example, which is titled:

Or in normal English order,
“The Image of the Most Holy Mother of God ‘Helper in Birth.'”

In this second variant, Mary’s head is bare, with her long hair visible; her head nods slightly to the side, and her hands are held inward but above the mandorla/clipeus in which the naked Christ Child stands.  In some examples the hands meet, with fingers overlapping, or are held in prayer.  So this is another of those few types in which Mary is shown bareheaded, a likely indication of borrowing from Roman Catholicism, because showing Mary with loose hair is not typically Eastern Orthodox.  That is probably why some copies add a headcovering to this type.

Examples of these “midwives’ icons” began to appear in large numbers in Russia in the 19th century, which is why most old examples one sees are only from the 19th-early 20th century.  Modern copies of “Helper” icons — both painted but more often printed  — are quite common.

A supposedly “wonderworking” example of this type “appeared” as late as 1993, when Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev was giving communion to an old woman in her home.  She told her granddaughter to go to the attic and get an icon.  An old copy of the “Helper in Childbirth” was brought down, covered with dust, soot, and cobwebs, and having a darkened metal cover (riza/oklad).  The old lady gave it to Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev.  The icon was cleaned, and supposedly began to work miracles involving childbirth and infertility.  It is kept in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas ‘The White’ (Собор Николы Белого) in the city of Serpukhov ( Серпухов).

With these two type variants, expect also variations in title and in form from copy to copy.  One may even find Mary shown full length, or a thin crescent moon below the Child.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the “Helper in Birth” icon on December 6 (Old Calendar) or January 8 (New Calendar), considered in folk tradition the day of midwives and of women in labor.  On this day gifts — particularly of prepared food — were brought to midwives to honor them.  Midwives cooked a kind of porridge of millet or buckwheat, which was used in a folk ritual to make a child grow well.  The midwife would hold up the pot of porridge and say Расти высоко-высокоRasti vuisoko-vuisoko”  — “Grow high!”  That is why the day is called Бабьи каши —Bab’i Kashi, meaning loosely “Old Wives’ Porridge”; kasha is a porridge made of grains boiled in water or milk.

Now to confuse matters, there is a third Marian icon associated with birth, and in form it may appear either like the first variant above, or like the second variant, but with a different title.  It may also depict Mary’s hands below the mandorla/clipeus with the child, rather than above, or even depict one hand raised and one lowered.  This type is called  Слово плоть бысть — Slovo Plot’ Buist’ — “The Word Was Made Flesh” (taken from John 1:14), and it is also referred to as the Albazinskaya icon or as Знамение Албазинская — the  “Znamenie ‘Albazinskaya’”  It is best to distinguish it from the others if it bears either of these titles.

One can easily see from this image how it might be confused with the second variant above, except for title:

Here is the form with hands held below the Child:

Notice the cloth — like an omophorion — across Mary’s hands.  It is not always present, and some examples may place Mary’s hands above the Child, with a thin crescent moon below.

The origin story of the Albazinskaya “Word Was Made Flesh” type relates that it was taken from the Kirensk Holy Trinity Monastery at Kirensky Ostrog (a fortress settlement on the Kirenga and Lena Rivers in Siberia)  to the village of Albazin in 1665-6 by the staretz Ermogen.  Albazin (now Albazino/Албазино́) was the first Russian settlement on the Amur River, and a fortress was built there in 1651.  The Amur — called the “Black Dragon River” by the Chinese — has long been an area of border contention and struggles between Russia and China.

The icon was then taken to Sretensk, on the bank of the Shilka River — a tributary of the Amur.  In 1868 it was moved again, this time to Blagoveshchensk.  In 1916 the icon was used to bless the Amur River Bridge, completing the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  After a stay in a museum during the Soviet Era, it is now kept in the Blagoveshchensk Cathedral.  While originally it was regarded as a kind of “protector” of the settlement at the Russian border region with China, it gradually became regarded as a helper with problems in pregnancy and birth.

Now obviously there is much confusion of form and title among these “Helper” icons, and when identifying them, the wise course is just to use the title written on a given icon.  In the absence of a title, one should generally classify an icon by the common title given the first or second variant, depending on form, unless the “Word is Made Flesh” or Albazinskaya title is present.


Of the four Gospels found in the New Testament, that called “of Matthew” is the only one to tell the story of the visit of the Magi.  Magi — Magoi in Greek — referred to a class of Persian priests who came to have a reputation in the Greek-speaking world for astrology, magic (sorcery), and the interpretation of dreams.

We find magi mentioned in the Greek Septuagint book of Daniel at 1:20, 2:2, 2:10 2:27, 4:4, 5:7, 5:11, and 5:15.  For example, 1:20 reads:

καὶ ἐν παντὶ ρήματι σοφίας καὶ ἐπιστήμης, ὧν ἐζήτησε παρ’ αὐτῶν ὁ βασιλεύς, εὗρεν αὐτοὺς δεκαπλασίονας παρὰ πάντας τοὺς ἐπαοιδοὺς καὶ τοὺς μάγους τοὺς ὄντας ἐν πάσῃ τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ.

“And in every matter of wisdom and knowledge wherein the king questioned them, he found them ten times wiser than all the enchanters and sorcerers that were in all his kingdom.”

The plural of the word is μάγοι (magoi) and the singular μάγος ( (magos).  The verb derived from it means to do magic (sorcery), as we find in Acts 8:9-11:

Ἀνὴρ δέ τις ὀνόματι Σίμων προϋπῆρχεν ἐν τῇ πόλει μαγεύων καὶ ἐξιστάνων τὸ ἔθνος τῆς Σαμαρείας, λέγων εἶναί τινα ἑαυτὸν μέγαν, ᾧ προσεῖχον πάντες ἀπὸ μικροῦ ἕως μεγάλου λέγοντες· Οὗτός ἐστιν ἡ Δύναμις τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ καλουμένη Μεγάλη. προσεῖχον δὲ αὐτῷ διὰ τὸ ἱκανῷ χρόνῳ ταῖς μαγείαις ἐξεστακέναι αὐτούς.

But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.  And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.”

In Acts 13:6-8 we find this:

διελθόντες δὲ ]ὅλην τὴν νῆσον ἄχρι Πάφου εὗρον ἄνδρα τινὰ μάγον ψευδοπροφήτην Ἰουδαῖον ᾧ ὄνομα Βαριησοῦ, ὃς ἦν σὺν τῷ ἀνθυπάτῳ Σεργίῳ Παύλῳ, ἀνδρὶ συνετῷ. οὗτος προσκαλεσάμενος Βαρναβᾶν καὶ Σαῦλον ἐπεζήτησεν ἀκοῦσαι τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ· ἀνθίστατο δὲ αὐτοῖς Ἐλύμας ὁ μάγος, οὕτως γὰρ μεθερμηνεύεται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, ζητῶν διαστρέψαι τὸν ἀνθύπατον ἀπὸ τῆς πίστεως.

And when they had gone through the isle to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer [magon], a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer [magos] (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.”

In the West, they are commonly known as Magi, the term used in the Latin Vulgate Bible, where we find in Matthew 2:1:

Cum ergo natus esset Jesus in Bethlehem Juda in diebus Herodis regis, ecce magi ab oriente venerunt Jerosolymam,

“When therefore Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Juda in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.”

It was common for Christians to disapprove of magic and sorcery, which is why Justin (Martyr) says of the Magi in his Dialogue of Trypho the Jew (78):

“For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds [i.e.sorcery] through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive; and this the Scripture has showed us to reside in Damascus.”

So that is how Justin justified the visit of Magi — commonly known as sorcerers — to the infant Jesus; he depicts them as revolting against magic.

The King James translation of the Bible solved the tricky sorcery issue by simply translating magoi as “wise men” when describing the visitors to Jesus, but used its ordinary meaning of “sorcerer” in translating the occurances in Acts.

Though we commonly think of the Magi as being three in number, that was not specified in the New Testament, and their number varied in early tradition.  Gradually, however, their number became fixed at three, most likely because of the three royal gifts they brought to Jesus — gold, frankincense and myrrh.

No explanation is given in the New Testament for why magi might choose to follow a star and come to the birth of a new king (whose birth was indicated by the star), but in the Syriac (“Arabic”) Infancy Gospel we find the reason given as a prophecy by the Persian sage Zoroaster/Zarathustra/Zeraduscht:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judaea, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zeraduscht  had predicted; and there were with them gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored Him, and presented to Him their gifts.”

The Magi first appear in Christian art in the Catacombs, and early on they take their classic form as three men wearing Phrygian caps (to indicate their Persian origin) and capes.  Here they are in a plaster cast taken from the Catacomb of Priscilla, late 2nd-early 3rd century c.e.:

The three, holding gifts, approach the seated mother and child, while overhead the Star of Bethlehem is seen.  This is the common form of their image — with slight variations — through the fourth and into the sixth century.

Here is a sixth-century Italo-byzantine mosaic image from the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, Italy:

They are recognizably the same three, with their phrygian caps, gifts, and the star above them.  But something interesting has been added, as we see in the Latin inscription above them:
“Saint Balthassar — Saint Melchior — Saint Gaspar”

They have been given names.  It is not certain precisely where these names originated, but they are found in variant form in a Latin translation of a Greek chronicle from Alexandria, Egypt, which dates from the last quarter of the 400s to the beginning of the 500s.  It is called Excerpta Latina Barbari — “Barbaric Latin Excerpts.”  The relevant portion reads:

In his diebus sub Augusto kalendas Ianuarias magi obtulerunt ei munera et adoraverunt eum: magi autem vocabantur Bithisarea Melchior Gathaspa

“At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshiped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.”

By the time of Giotto’s depiction of the visit of the Magi in the Arena Chapel, we find they have lost their Phrygian caps, and are now given crowns — as well as notable distinction in age:  one is young (Balthazar), one middle-aged and bearded (Melchior), and the third even older and grey (Gaspar/Casper).

This reflects the notion that the Magi were kings, which likely arose as interpretation of biblical excerpts, primarily these:

Psalm 72:10:

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

And Isaiah 60:3:

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

The next interesting stage in their development was the transformation of the youngest — Balthazar — into a dark-skinned king — a representation particularly popular in Northern Europe.  We find in the Excerpta et Collectanea —  attributed (probably in error) to the Venerable Bede — a description of Balthazar/Balthasar.  It reads, oddly and interestingly enough, like instructions from an icon painter’s manual:

Tertius fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthasar nomine….
“The third is dark, full beard, named Balthasar….”

In spite of the “full beard” description, Balthazar/Balthasar was often painted without a beard, as in this example by Hieronymus Bosch:

In an earlier posting we looked at an Italian-influenced Nativity icon that adopted the notion of a dark-skinned Balthazar:

Nonetheless, the dark-skinned Balthazar is not common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, though examples — usually late, like this Russian icon in the style popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century — are found:

(Courtesy of

It is common, however, for Russian examples to contain the “three ages” (young, middle-aged, old) representation of the Magi, as in this Russian icon:

Here is a closer look:

One also finds in some Russian icons the depiction of the Magi as kings with crowns:

(Courtesy of

Here is a detailed Russian Nativity icon:

(Courtesy of

In it we see the Magi, in their peculiar caps, following the star to Bethlehem…

Adoring the child Jesus….

And leaving at upper right:

Now perhaps you noticed — as one reader did — that in icons the Magi generally are depicted as riding horses.  The account of the Magi in Matthew tells us nothing about the means of transportation.

The Painter’s Manual of Dionysios of Fourna describes the visit of the Magi like this:

“A house and the All-holy One (Panagia) sitting on a chair, holding as infant the blessing Christ.  And the three Magi before her, offering their gifts in golden coffers (kivotia).  One of them is an old man with long beard, bare-headed, kneeling looking at the Christ; and with the one hand he offers his gift and with the other holds his crown.  The second king has a light beard, the third none at all.  They look at one another and gesture toward the Christ.  Behind the All-holy One, Joseph stands in wonder.  Outside the cave, a youth holds the three horses by their bridles.  Again one sees in the distance on a mountain, the three Magi on their horses and returning to their country, and an angel in front shows the way.”

As we have seen, the Giotto image — Western iconography — shows them with camels.  In the very ornate and elaborate Adorazione dei Magi (“Adoration of the Magi”) of Gentile da Fabriano, we find them given a large retinue, with their main transportation being three horses in the foreground; but this detail also shows a camel on which two monkeys are riding, at upper left:

Given that the account of the Magi in Matthew tells us nothing about their means of transportation, we find variations in art.  In the Medieval West, they generally ride horses, and camels are rare.  With the 1400s they have begun to be shown with a large retinue.

Some depictions assume they were kings riding camels because of an excerpt from Isaiah that Christians applied to the birth of Jesus.  Isaiah 60:1-6 reads:

Arise, shine; for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.

For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon you, and his glory shall be seen upon you.

And the Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to you: your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be nursed at your side.

Then you shall see, and flow together, and your heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted to you, the forces of the Gentiles shall come to you.

The multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.”

Of course in more recent times, we have become quite accustomed to thinking of the Magi traveling on camels, so it is often a surprise to find them on horses in older images.

Many books could be written on the Magi and the evolution of their legends and iconography, but that should suffice for now.



As mentioned in a previous posting, the characters commonly called “The Three Wise Men” in the West are known as Magoi in Greek and Volsvi in Slavic.  Here they are in a fresco:

Let’s take a look at the Greek inscriptions

The first two should be easy for you.  They are:


As you already know, ΜΡ ΘΥ abbreviates Meter Theou — “Mother [of] God”, and you should be able to easily recognize the second as the name IOSIF — JOSEPH — with the first I written above and as a part of the letter ω.

Next comes this inscription:

As is usual, the words are not separated, but all run together.  When we separate them, we get:


He, you will recall, is the feminine form of “the” in Greek.
Proskyneses is a phoneticized spelling of the Greek word common in the Bible and church literature, proskynesis (προσκύνησις).  Greek inscriptions often confuse Η (e) and Ι (i), because in later spoken Greek they both were pronounced as “ee.”

Prokynesis means to bow or prostrate yourself as a sign of respect or abnegation.  It began as an eastern custom in the royal court of Persia, and was adopted by Alexander the Great as the means of showing honor to him, though previously the Greeks had regarded proskynesis as something done only before a god or goddess.  Proskynesis — which could originally have been as mild as a kiss (pros means “toward,” kyneo means “kiss”) varied in its nature, and whether it was just a kiss or a bow or a full prostration on the ground (“kissing the ground”) depended on the status of those meeting.  The bow or prostration was a sign of obeisance or submission — and, in the case of a deity, of worship.

In the Gospel called “of Matthew” (no one knows who really wrote it; the earliest manuscripts are anonymous), we find this in 2:1-2:

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα λέγοντες, Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ.

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is the one born King of the Jews; for we have seen his star in the East and are come to give him obeisance.”
Obeisance here is proskynesai — to perform proskynesis in front of him.

The King James translation commonly translates proskynesis as “worship,” so in that version the Magi say,
Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

So that is what we have in the fresco inscription:

“The Proskynesis [Obeisance] of the Magi.”

There is a lot of discussion in theological circles over whether the writer of Matthew intended to indicate the proskynesis of the Magi as that done to show honor to a king (as would make sense here), or whether proskynesis before a deity was intended (if Matthew considered Jesus to be a deity).  In any case, proskynesis was something done before a deity, a ruler, or it could even be before a highly-respected person, as a show of the performer’s subordinate status.  In Eastern Orthodox Church usage, proskynesis is done before icons and relics of the saints.

You may recall the common inscription on Russian crosses:

“We honor [bow before] your cross, Lord, and praise your holy resurrection.”

In the Greek liturgy of John Chrysostom, we find it as:

Τὸν Σταυρόν σου, Χριστέ, προσκυνοῦμεν καὶ τὴν ἁγίαν σου Ἀνάστασιν ὑμνοῦμεν καὶ δοξάζομεν·

Ton stauron sou Khriste proskynoumen kai ten hagian sou anastasin hymnoumen [praise in song] kai doxazomen.

“Your cross, Christ, we proskynoumen [perform proskynesis before] and your holy resurrection we hymn and glorify.”

On to the last inscription.  It is:


This again has a phonetic spelling in ΜΑΓΥ (Magy), which should be ΜΑΓΟΙ (Magoi).  Here again, in later Greek oi and y have the same “ee” sound when spoken.  But we should understand the inscription as:


We see in the fresco that one of the Magi is looking up in the sky, where the Star of Bethlehem would be.

In the next posting, we will take a closer look at who the Magi (Magoi) were, and trace their development in Christian art and icons.